Saturday, 10 October 2009

Hallgrímur Helgason: The Author of Iceland - 6


There is nothing more beautiful in this world than an Icelandic summer night. When the sun plays hide-and-seek behind a hill or a ness and slowly and calmly we count up to a hundred until it rises again. And meanwhile the light is even and dispersed and neutral, and seems to come from the earth rather than the sky; each tussock, stone and crag, field and gravel-plain seems to glow, seems to reverberate with all the light they have absorbed throughout the day. Night becomes day, and is not made for sleeping; one goes outside to contemplate the simultaneous display of world and life: overhead the sky is as white as an empty sheet of paper on which someone has doodled some clouds out of pure thoughtlessness, on impulse, but also from kindness, filling them full of truth; they shine with an ease that is only within the grasp of a master and around you has been drawn a horizon of hills and mountains, nesses and sea. But it is all of it gentle tonight. The waves have taken to their ocean bed and closed the window behind them: now they are tossing and turning in their sleep under the silent surface. The winds of the heavens have crawled into holes and burrows and are watching there with open eyes. And the glaciers have lost all their coldness and now appear to the eye like the whitest flower heads: newly blossomed mountain cores.

That is what an Icelandic summer night is like. And that is what it is like here in this narrow fjord, tool. Everything is good tonight. And everything is quiet. I could hear each blade of grass around me grow, but it doesn’t, it laughs.

I looked at the people on the slope again. Some kind of restlessness had taken hold of the group. Though no sound could be heard, I saw that two men were having a tussle. What people were these? A small boat now appeared in front of the large mountain, heading slowly but surely into the fjord, breaking the calm surface with its wake and the silence with the low pit-a-pat of its engine. This was beautiful. The boat was riding deep in the water, with a full load, speeding out from its wake like a train on tracks. The night train from Kiev was a noisy rattlesnake. In the window, White Russia was pitch black. The occasional log hut flashed past in a trice in the direction of Utopia; the train on its way in the other. I was being shaken about too much to be able to write, though unable to shake off the foul-smelling proletarian who had lurched into my compartment; a dead-drunk puss-in-boots with a full beard. Only when Russians were drunk did they have freedom of speech. It was like an unwritten law: people weren’t killed for what they said during drunken binges. Not unlike the arrangement here at home. This was, of course, a tradition that dated from tsarist days, and a very good reason for all their drinking. Half way to Minsk he told a joke, in German. Never before had I heard a word spoken against the Leader, and to tell the truth I was deadly afraid as I sat in that compartment.

Yes. Stalin. That Stalin. Stalin, you know who he is. Yes, well, he was taking a dip in the river, the Volga, or, oh well, just some river… It’s just a joke, you know… a joke, yes. But anyway, he landed up in… went out into a strong current, a whirlpool, sort of, and almost got drowned. Stalin, yes. Stalin nearly drowned. Think about it, comrade. Stalin… But then… Then some peasant came along, and he… he rescued Stalin. Pulled him up on to the bank. Then Stalin said: ‘I am Stalin.’ That’s what he said. ‘I am Stalin. You may have any wish granted.’ And the peasant, this fellow, he… The peasant wished… He didn’t want to wish. He just wished that Stalin wouldn’t tell anyone that he had rescued him. For otherwise… “otherwise they’ll kill me.” Heh heh heh, “otherwise they’ll kill me.” Heh heh heh…’

I didn’t get the joke at first. He laughed like a crazy man.

‘He rescued Stalin, you see… The man can’t swim… But the peasant saved him, why did he do that, eh? WHY IN HELL'S NAME DID HE RESCUE THE BLOODY SWINE, EH?’

The drunken puss-in-boots stood up, shook his fist at me, then pulled the window down and shouted out into the night:


(to be continued)

translated from Icelandic by David McDuff

The Author of Iceland - 1
The Author of Iceland - 2
The Author of Iceland - 3
The Author of Iceland - 4
The Author of Iceland - 5

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